By Austin American-Statesman
What do you call a rock star who is, among other things, a noted photographer, graphic artist, film score composer, film director and a writer/performer who has recently added "Au Fond du Temple Saint" from Bizet's opera "The Pearl Fishers" and "Un Di, Felice" from Verdi's "La Traviata" to his play list?
Well, David Byrne would work.
The peripatetic Byrne arrives in Austin for a Sunday performance at Hogg Auditorium as a part of his "My Backwards Life" tour, promoting his CD "Grown Backwards." Among the musical offerings: the aforesaid operatic selections, Byrne's cover of the Lambchop song "The Man Who Loved Beer," "Glass, Concrete and Stone," "Auscencia," a Stephen Barber rearrangement of "Lazy" and "Life During Wartime" (plus other forays down Talking Heads memory lane).
Byrne's bringing with him his longtime backing partners bassist Paul Frazier and percussionist Mauro Refosco, along with drummer Graham Hawthorne and six Austin-based string players who have been a part of the tour since it began.
Four of the six -- violinists Leigh Mahoney and Tracy Seeger, violist Ames Asbell and cellist Sara Nelson -- were members of what used to be known as the Tosca String Quartet, a group formed in 1997 as a part of Glover Gill's Tosca Tango Orchestra. They've increased their number by two for this tour -- violinist Jamie Desautels and cellist Douglas Harvey -- and are now known as the Tosca Strings. All six are products of the UT School of Music, where they first met.
According to Byrne, the idea of adding strings regularly to his band started with his 1989 album "Rei Momo." In a phone interview, Byrne said, "I had used strings intermittently before, but I really started to use them with this album. There's a tradition of strings in a lot of Latin music. I just love the mix of the swing and rhythm of percussion combined with the more sensuous, 'other,' kind of sound strings bring into it."
"I kind of dabbled with it after that. Not until my last couple of recordings ('Look Into the Eyeball' and 'Grown Backwards') did I decide that I was going to get into this a little more heavily, and that it would be represented in my touring group as well."
Byrne continued, "I heard about the Tosca String Quartet from a violinist in New York. I mentioned that we were going to Austin to play a set for SXSW 2001 and that I wanted to work with some local players. She told me about this group called Tosca that was used to playing all kinds of music. So when we got to Austin, we did a short set with them at (La) Zona Rosa. We got along great, they played well and they were a lot of fun. So I kind of filed that away, and when it became financially feasible, they were my first choice for the touring group."
The current tour has been traveling since March 2004, spending six weeks in Europe, a month in the United States, four more weeks in Europe and wrapping up after another six weeks in the United States, with roughly weeklong breaks between each leg.
The Tosca Strings appear to like life on the road.
"I think it's terrific just being able to see all these amazing places," says Seeger, reflecting on the European leg of the current tour. "Even if I had the money, I don't think I would have chosen to go to some of the places we played. You get a glimpse of culture all over Europe, but it's very tiring, extremely tiring, more than I had anticipated. The bus was not all that comfortable."
Mahoney gave up trying to sleep in the bus' cramped bunks, and she and bassist Frazier usually ended up sitting in the bus' lounge all night.
To put the need for sleep into perspective, Asbell gives a description of a typical bus-tour day on the road: "We'll wrap up a show around 1 or 2 a.m. with some after-show snacks, which we generally take on the bus with us. We eat on the way to the next destination, and try to catch some sleep. We arrive at the next stop early in the morning and check into 'day rooms' in a local hotel. That's our chance for a shower, more sleep and maybe some local sightseeing. Sound check for that night's show usually starts around 4 in the afternoon, then we eat a pre-show meal, do the show and start the cycle all over again."
Nelson chimes in: "You do get tired, but it seems like no matter how tired you get, or how much of a bad day you may be having, once you get on stage it all just goes away. We play on almost every song, and Steve Barber's arrangements are really intense, but it's amazing how the audience energizes you."
"The show's a real workout," Mahoney says. "Many groups use strings as fluff and icing, not as an integral part of the music-making; but David treats the strings entirely differently. For him, it's a whole new medium to explore."
Harvey, who'll be leaving the tour in October to return to his position as principal cellist with the Austin Symphony, compares his work in the touring group to his regular gig: "Technically, the music is pretty similar, and the arrangements are complex. The main difference is the communication between musicians. We're all using amplified instruments and wearing earphones, so it's a different way of hearing and knowing what other players are doing. It takes a while to get used to, but it's been a good experience."
Desautels, who regularly performs with the Dallas-based new music group Neocamerata, added: "David's continuing along a new path in musical styles, drawing on so many differing musical sources and using players with such varied backgrounds. It's fantastic to be able to work with him."
If there's one thing the six string players appear to have in common, it is admiration for their boss. Expressing the feelings of the group, Nelson says, "David leads the sound check, goes over pieces that may need review. He's very open. He's tuned into everything and very responsive to things we think need working on. The energy he has is incredible. While the rest of us are still trying to sleep, he'll be downstairs in the bus, making coffee for everyone; and while we're relaxing in our day rooms, he's out cycling around whatever city we happen to be in!"
Along the way, there have been some memorable hurdles: Nelson and Harvey looking out the window of an airplane one day to see their cello cases still sitting on the baggage cart as the plane taxied away from the terminal (it eventually stopped and the instruments were put aboard); an Amsterdam cleaners that shrank Byrne's and Mahoney's jumpsuits so that they no longer fit ("Tracy helped me stretch it back into shape," testifies Mahoney). There were lost passports and plane tickets, problems at the Russian border, and a really deplorable absence of good Mexican food (although there was that one catered meal in Copenhagen). It is abundantly clear, though, that the good experiences far outweighed the bad for the six Austin string players.
What's next for the Tosca Strings? "My Backward Life" starts a tour of South America in October, during which Tosca will once again join Glover Gill in Argentina for some tango concerts; then a tour of Asia and the Pacific next spring. Between tour legs, some of the six will be in the orchestra pit for Austin Lyric Opera's January production of Richard Strauss's "Elektra," and will undoubtedly playing other local gigs as well.
In other words, they'll be doing what Tosca has always done -- let's call it "The Austin Musician Thing." Byrne sums it up in a recent press release: "At a club on Sixth Street in Austin, Tosca organized an evening of performances of short pieces all written by local musicians, ranging from compositions by members of Trail of Dead to others by the Golden Hornet Project. And then on another night Pat Dillett and I saw them accompany a Finnish surfer/klezmer guitarist and singer calling themselves the She Devils. Sometimes they play in the Austin Symphony. It all fits. In New York, this would be extraordinary, newsworthy, but in Austin it's sort of typical."